Discovering Afghanistan with Zachary App
Semester Abroad: Fall 2009
Home University: University of Massachusetts
Host University: Mahidol University
Describe what you were doing in Afghanistan.
I didn't really know what to say to my friends and family when they asked me why I was going to Afghanistan. Why does anyone go some place new and unfamiliar?
Maybe for those two reasons. I just wanted to go and see for myself. I flew into Kabul with a backpack and a duffel bag full of teaching materials I had bought in India, where I spent the last half of my summer traveling with a friend. The Afghan non-government organization I volunteered with placed me in Bamiyan, an area of the Hazarajat in central Afghanistan, where I taught English at an orphanage and a school. Both the orphanage and school, and eighty homes in the village where they are located were built by the organization and are funded and administered by them. I taught classes four through eight there from Saturday through Thursday. Friday is a holiday because it is the Muslim holy day.
What was the most interesting aspect of working at an orphanage there?
I learned about the organization's projects and being involved at the orphanage and school I learned about the situation of the children there and the Hazara people of Bamiyan. The people in the village and the children at the orphanage are all returnee refugees, who fled to Pakistan and Iran during the Taliban.
Many of the children lost their parents during that time and many of their parents were killed by the Taliban, just simply because they are Hazara and Shia Muslims. At the orphanage, they are in a safe and clean environment with a family that cares about them and they are able to study to build their future.
They are the happiest kids and we had fun everyday playing frisbee, football, cards, games, and just hanging around drinking chai and eating nan, but I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must be for them. They told me that just saying the word "Bamiyan" makes them feel peaceful. They are the best kids in the world and I wish the very best for all of them.
What did you learn about yourself through the experience?
I learned what it was like to live in Afghanistan, a socially conservative country with a culture very different from any other place I've been. It was a reverse culture shock for me coming back to Thailand. The staff lives at the office where I stayed, so I developed a close friendship with all of them. I understand now how truly important education is and the value of it to people who don't have the opportunity to go to school. In the east and south of the country, the Taliban are blowing up schools and girls are not allowed to go to school both because of security concerns and because their conservative parents do not believe girls should be educated. In Bamiyan, the children can get a good education in school and feel safe. Above all of that though, was what I learned about the children at the orphanage. Now I know the damage war does to innocent families and children like those at the orphanage who now don't have a family because of it.
How will you use your experience in your future professional endeavors?
After graduation I hope to do humanitarian work for an NGO in the central/south/southeast Asia region. I would like to go back to Afghanistan or to Pakistan and work there. I want to live and work in that region and get enough experience to eventually start my own NGO. There is so much work to be done there and for every organization that helps the country take a step forward, the poor situation and economy takes it a step backward. This internship along with the other volunteering I've done in Asia has helped me decide my plans for the future.
What advice can you give to future students who are interested in being an active participant in their study/working abroad experience?
I would encourage future students to think outside the box with what they decide to do. Students can be active participants by being involved while they are here and I think it’s good to be involved in a way that’s right for what they want to do, even if others haven't done it or think differently.
Since arriving in Thailand in Januray 2009 App has taken advantage of all that Asia has to offer by venturing to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Nepal, India, Afghanisan.